Control: Video Games and How to Learn to Write From Them

Daniel Trump
3 min readJun 30, 2020

I, Dalton Lewis, confess hereby and irrevocably to loving video games. I play them over and over, day after day, as often as possible. Why? I don’t know. I just love them. I sit, in my room, and play Mass Effect repeatedly until I know virtually every line and scene. I love the cinematic nature of the game and the overarching story which lets me daydream of something more — of something greater than a life on Earth in the year 2020 in an era in which we are just barely developing advanced technologies.

What do they show? What can I learn from playing video games all day long? I notice things about the Mass Effect games. First the characters are unforgettable: they have interesting characteristics and feel unique. Urdnot Wrex tolerates no bullshit and has no stories; he says to ask someone else if you want stories. Tali is a skittish, confident teen girl who loves engines and is a super genius who cares about everyone around her. Garrus Vakarian is a clever detective who is always in situations so unfathomably difficult as to be comical. He just sounds unique. Every character sounds unique and helps you on your journey to save the universe. Urdnot Wrex gets mad at the protagonist, really mad, when the protagonist wants to destroy the cure to a plague hurting his people. The protagonist, Commander Shepard, doesn’t want the bad guys to have a huge army. This sort of dramatic conflict — good person against good person — is the sort of thing that needs to happen in stories.

In a memorable scene in Mass Effect 2, Garrus Vakarian loses his entire team to a traitor. He stands, in a sniper perch, fighting off enemies until your protagonist arrives. You and he take down a small army of goons in order to take down the crime lords in the area. The fight feels so cinematic and important — it feels real, more real than doing chores at home or riding the exercise bike. It feels important.

Dragon Age II is the least popular of the series but the best: it has the best story. The qunari are a race of giant oxmen who lost their holy book, their bible, to a thief, and they spend years looking for it. They have to live with everyone else in Kirkwall, watching the sinful humans, elves, and dwarves lie, cheat, sleep with people, and drink liquor and use drugs. They grow incensed at this sin and try to take the city. Your protagonist has to challenge their leader to a duel at the city’s main keep with all of the lords and ladies watching. It’s a tremendous setpiece.

I need that in my writing: tremendous setpieces in which interesting things happen. I need more dramatic conflict. I need more. I am rewriting two novels: one a sci-fi epic and one a little novel about depression, middle school, and religion. I want both of them to be interesting and intelligent and readable. I want them to mean something to people. Time will tell if I succeed.

Thanks, and take care, friends.

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